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Bethlehem... a reflection
Frédéric Manns, ofm
House of Bread. Such would be the etymology of the name "Bethlehem" according to Jerome. In a small village, not far of the Imperial intrigues of the fortress called Herodion, a child was born. In the fragility of his birth, He puts an end to the long waiting of Israel. On the root of Jesse a flower bursts forth.
Jesus is not a divine man which the Greek mythology celebrated in its quest for wisdom. He is not the symbol of humanity exalted to the point of becoming God. He is God made Man. The Christian scandal is the humanization of God, his humility, his kenosis.
The message of God who humiliated himself is well known in the Infancy narratives of the Gospels. While the Gospel of Mark opens with the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, Matthew and Luke insisted upon the mystery of the Incarnation of God. The God who becomes Man, who comes to fulfill the Scriptures of Israel : "If you could tear the Heavens and come down". A God who shares the human condition, who suffers with his people, who intervenes to free him, is something entirely new.
The Bible celebrated the efficacy of the Word who created the world "Through his Word, the heavens were made". This Word is nothing else than the wisdom of God. Ben Sira arrived at this conclusion after much meditation. The New Testament which accomplishes the Old One even if surpassing it, affirms in the prologue of the Gospel of John : "The Word became flesh and lived amongst us". The Word became a maan in whom the glory of God manifested itself. Bethlehem, the City of David, accepted this message, revealed to the humble and not to the wise. Wisdom pitched her tent in the midst of men. God revealed himself as Emmanuel, God with us.
The Church Fathers surprised by this newness, expressed themselves in song.
A good news of that kind can only be sung because it gladdens the heart and opens the door to an illuminated hope. Ireneus of Lyon, Heir of the Johannine tradition, celebrates the absolute Originality of Incarnation. God makes everything new. The birth of Jesus brings freshness to a world grown old. All that is old and used retreats before the child Jesus. The one who comes makes all things new. Prophet Isaiah announced New Heavens and New Earth. It means that the birth of the child of Bethlehem has a cosmic dimension. All creation awaited liberation because it was subjected to sin.
Incarnating himself, the Word of God became like us, in order that we may become like him. The world is transformed into a foretaste of heaven at the moment of Incarnation. God becomes Man in order that Man should become God, repeat the Church Fathers. He becomes poor in order to make us rich. He becomes small in order to make us great.
The Incarnation of the Son of God means that the vocation of mankind is to be divinized. St. John in his first letter affirms that we are truly sons of God. To recognize this dignity, means to proclaim that the world has meaning and is not absurd. Human condition has been enriched and divine spark is present in every creature. The Spirit of God who covered Mary with his shadow is able to repeat the same miracle.
Meditating on the mystery of the Word becoming Flesh, the mystics spoke about the "abbreviated Word", Verbum abbreviatum. The "long" Word of the Old Testament which inspired the Prophets, becomes "short" in the Child who is born in Bethlehem. St. Francis concludes that the creature must give a brief word since Christ is the "abbreviated Word of the Father", the Word which is a summary of the law and the prophets. This word summarizes the teaching of the Gospel in one commandment : the commandment of love.
Christmas speaks about a triple birth : the birth of the unique son of God generated by the Father in His divine essence, the birth from a mother who in her fertility conserved her chastity, the birth by which God is born in all those who accept him. It means that the symphony of Christmas is not complete while the hearts of believers remains closed.
To recall the Incarnation, at the beginning of the Gospels, means to underline the originality of Christian thought. The son of God who shares the condition of man is the new Adam, the one who fulfills totally the vocation of man. He is the wisdom of God announced in the Old Testament, who pitched his tent among men. He is the Emmanuel who suffers with mankind and brings it back to the Father. God came in such a manner that it is impossible for him to find his glory without the world. From Christmas onward, everything is drawn towards the love of the face of the Father. Time is enveloped by eternity, because eternity came into time. The night of the world transforms itself into life.
The Son of God, when He becomes a Son of this world, accepts to be conditioned by a culture and a language. In reality He contains the universe. He does not want to appropriate the world as a prey. In Him the world is vivified by the spirit. He transforms the world and the effort of humankind to transform it.
Judaism and Islam reject the Incarnation of God because of His transcendence. God cannot become too close to his creature, otherwise He risks losing his divinity. The Incarnation is not a humiliation of mans reason, but rather a recognition of his dignity. Origen in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 14:7 pointed out that the body of Christ is not different from the Church. Both are united and man cannot separate them. It means that the mystery of the Incarnation prolongs itself in the Church. The life God gave us is a ray of His love. The aim of the Incarnation of the Son of God was to permit the communion with God and between men. A god which is not Trinity does not share anything. Jesus is bringing us salvation which means sharing in the life of God.
To celebrate Christmas means to celebrate ones own experience with the encounter of Christ who in Eucharist opens to us the house of bread. It means also to prepare humanity for the coming in glory of the Son of God.
Not far away from Bethlehem, the Pope will greet the refugees of the Dheisheh Camp. Since the war of 1948 those refugees are in a precarious condition. The Pope wants to remind humanity that every man has his own dignity. Jesus himself had to flee to Egypt to escape from the wrath of Herod. He knew fully the problems of humankind. It is urgent for Christians to recognize the signs of the time, since a new world begins to sprout.